Post 801: Kill the Hallucinating Goldfish

This is blog post number 801. It’s time for something special. Time for an extended essay encapsulating several trains of thought which I’ve been following for some time.

We are the 801,
We are the central shaft
And thus throughout two years
We’ve crossed the ocean in our little craft (Row! Row! Row!)
Now we’re on the telephone,
Making final arrangements (Ding! Ding!)
We are the 801, we are the central shaft

Cover from Brian Eno album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

So sang Brian Eno in the song The True Wheel from his 1974 album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

Eno says he wrote the lyrics while visiting New York:

I went to stay with this girl called Randi and fell asleep after taking some mescaline and had this dream where this group of girls were singing to this group of sailors who had just come into port. And they were singing ‘We are The 801 / We are the Central Shaft’ — and I woke up absolutely jubilant because this was the first bit of lyric I’d written in this new style.

Yes, apparently in the 1970s a musician wrote a song while under the influence of hallucinogens. Who’d have thought.

Society generally frowns upon people who make important decisions while under the influence. (By an odd coincidence, Hugh MacLeod posted some vaguely-related thoughts only yesterday, in dying young is overrated, revisited.) However the more I look, the more I worry that we’re governed as if our societies were hallucinating. And even worse, it’s as if they’ve forgotten how to remember the lessons of the past.

I’m worried that we’re governed by Hallucinating Goldfish.

I reckon our societies aren’t just hallucinating. They’re suffering paranoid schizophrenia.

Instead of acting upon real data collected from the real world, we construct paranoid fantasies and then respond to those.

Our tabloid media report every threat, adding every scary adjective they can find, to convince us the world is a threatening place. Our politicians often like this, because frightened people will suspend rational thought and Demand That Something Be Done. Apparently politicians have even been known to help this process along by creating new threats for us to be afraid of.

  1. The Howard government’s NetAlert campaign over-emphasised the potential risk to children online.

    The claim in the NetAlert advertising campaign that over half of 11–15 year olds who chat online are contacted by strangers does not appear in the government commissioned research.

    In fact, only 14% of the research participants said their mix of chat partners included people they hadn’t met. Even before NetAlert, three-quarters of parents had already discussed online dangers with their kids.

  2. Massive energies are spent in the War on Terror (an abstract noun!) even though, as I’ve pointed out before, you’re far more likely to drown in your own bathtub.
  3. Headlines constantly scream about Wild teen crime waves, even though children are safer than ever before.
  4. Dr Mohamed Haneef.
  5. Adam Curtis’ powerful documentary The Power of Nightmares explains how a vision of a secret, organized evil that threatens the world has been used by American Neo-Conservatives and Islamic Radical movements alike. The entire film is freely downloadable from the Internet Archive.

Our continual state of hallucinatory paranoia is made worse by a lack of long-term memory. Societies try things, and sometimes they don’t work — but that doesn’t seem to stop us trying them again.

  1. Investors pour millions into Web 2.0 businesses they don’t really understand, even though the lessons of the first dot-com bubble were obvious.
  2. The War on (Some) Drugs continues operating in a prohibition mentality, even though that’s been shown to fail so many times before. I can thoroughly recommend Richard Davenport-Hines’ book The Pursuit of Oblivion: a social history of drugs for gaining an understanding, and this BBC interview might be worth a listen.
  3. When we designed mainframe computers, we learned that security was something that needed to be part of the original design, not grafted on as a “feature” afterwards. Then we connected PCs to the Internet, with fundamentally insecure operating systems like Windows and the original MacOS, and were surprised when they got hacked. We’ve started connecting “smart phones” to the grid, with fundamentally insecure operating systems, and we’re surprised when mobile phone viruses appear. And now we’re about to connect TVs to the Internet too.

Yes, I’m worried that we’re governed by Hallucinating Goldfish.

So what can we do about it?

Well, I’m a big fan of Science. All that Age of Enlightenment stuff. Reason. Logic. Joined-up thinking. We should demand it of our leaders (political, cultural, religious), employers, employees and ourselves.

It’s heartening to see that Chairman Rudd is all for evidence-based policy development.

I’m a Labor moderniser. Always have been, always will be and what that’s on about is good evidence-based policy in terms of producing the best outcomes for this nation, carving out its future in a pretty uncertain century where things fundamentally are changing.

It’ll be interesting to see how PM Rudd handles situations where the evidence runs counter to Labor’s political imperative — particularly when compromise is needed to get legislation through the still-hostile Senate.

There’s a lot we can do as individuals to help kill the Hallucinating Goldfish.

  1. Learn how to see though the tricks. I J Good’s paper A Classification of Fallacious Arguments and Interpretations provides a formal list of dodgy tricks, but Wikipedia’s articles on fallacy and propaganda techniques provide a great start. The classic book How To Lie with Statistics and the newer How to Lie with Maps are also great reads.
  2. Turn off the crap. Rid your life of the tabloid media, including shock-horror newspapers and TV programs.
  3. Demand to see the evidence. If someone claims some fact or statistic, don’t take it at face value. Use The Power of the Internet to check it out.
  4. Spread the word. If you spot misinformation or faulty reasoning, tell your friends, family and colleagues. Make your coffee-break conversation more useful than whingeing about the boss or prattling on about lame TV programs.

This all reads like a manifesto, I know, and perhaps it is. Reason and logic are supposedly what makes us humans so special. And yet when it comes to managing our greatest creations, our own societies, we discard those skills and give in to the Hallucinating Goldfish.

It’s time to Kill the Hallucinating Goldfish.

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9 comments

  1. monstro23’s avatar

    Whilst it seems valid to observe that our local society displays some of the characteristics of amnesia, paranoia and schizophrenia, whether one can extrapolate this to the individual members of such seems questionable. Since these concepts are socially constructed in any case, one also has to ask whether a mentally ill society can reliably diagnose itself in any case — or do you contend that your post represents a flash of ‘lucidity’?

    But I digress — I was intending to observe that (I dimly recall [ergo!]{t}) that Eno mentioned somewhere that the 801 referred to the 801st generation of humanity on earth. Consequently, when my group covered it our integrity compelled us to increment the chorus…

  2. monstro23’s avatar

    Whoops! I meant to add that I do endorse your conclusions and agree the Power of Nightmares is a very interesting prog. I wouldn’t have seen it if I’d had the TV off though…

  3. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @monstro23: You’re right, I am confusing the levels of my metaphor there a bit. A human can be labelled “paranoid”, though her cells are all working fine. And I guess a society can be paranoid even though the individuals comprising it are all sane. I think. I’m confused now. Maybe my metaphor needs more work.

    Eno did indeed mention that 801 was the number of generations of humans. According to notes in the lyrics article:

    In Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1975?) he posits that, since the dawn of modern man (Homo Sapiens) there have been about 800 generations of man: i.e. 800 average lifetimes. And we are the 801st.

    Eno’s lyrics also imply “we are the future generation”.

    Eno is also quoted as saying:

    I found out, long after I had written the song, that the number 801 means “Alpha and Omega” or “the first and the last” in the Cabala and that this entity is a circular concept… The number 801 (which, with all the rest of the chorus refrain, was plucked unaltered from my dream) has another meaning which I find interesting. In the Cabala, the twenty-two Tarot cards are arranged such that they rest on the paths between the Tree of Life. Each of the paths has a number, and each of the numbers corresponds to one of the cards in the Major Arcana of the Tarot. The paths 801 describe a pyramid whose individual sides are STRENGTH, THE FOOL, and THE MAGICIAN.

    In the Bible, Revelations 22 says (in the King James version):

    13. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. 14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

    Make of it what you will. I am not a biblical scholar, or even a Christian for that matter. And no, I don’t think I had any particular lucidity there.

    I would love to hear your version of The Third Wheel though!

  4. mpesce’s avatar

    If you don’t see the Fnords, they can’t eat you. Don’t see the Fnords.

  5. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @mpesce: All Hail Eris!

  6. franksting’s avatar

    Did Jon Stewart cog this article for his speech in Washington on the weekend?

  7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @franksting: I cannot answer that question. However, have you ever seen me and Stephen Colbert in the same place at the same time? Or, same question, Princess Margaret?

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